What is a content management system?

What is a content management system?It’s not the most self-explanatory term in the world. In the very old days, we built websites line-by-line of code all by hand and you needed to be a programmer to update the site and add text. 

Now there’s a myriad of platforms to choose from, and you’ll hear about content management systems or CMS a lot when researching what to build your website in. 

In simple terms, a CMS is a way to add content to a website, without needing to know how to program it. More technically they are database-driven systems, where web pages extract and format the data that’s been added to a user-friendly interface such as a web page. 

Website designers 20 years ago used to do it all; design, code and SEO. Now those roles have diverged to backend developers, front end designers, content writers, SEO experts and more. 

Websites can now be worked on by all those people without them overwriting each other’s work. So the front end designer can merrily be playing with CSS and adding the pixie dust that makes it look pretty and work on all the devices, the back end developer can be fixing bugs, whilst the content writer can be adding and editing content usually all at the same time, with the occasional exception. 

This all sounds hunky-dory, but there are three main ways a CMS can work:

Custom content management

Hundreds of years ago, back at the dawn of the millennium, I built my first content management websites using DreamWeaver UltraDev powered by a Microsoft Access Database. The words ‘Don’t try this at home kids’ spring to mind, it really isn't advisable to do it this way! At least I learnt about relational databases and server-side programming, in this case, ASP, not the good old PHP we use now. It was a very unstable way of going about things, sites would randomly crash and back then spam and hacking were much less common, so we got away with not worrying about the security back then, how things have changed. 

A custom content management system is a site that’s been created by a website developer, often in PHP and using a MySQL database, a much better solution than the cludge I mentioned earlier. These can be fantastic looking, wizzy, feature full websites jammed with great stuff once created. My worry with these sites is the long term security, it’s totally dependent on the creator or whoever takes over the website. 

Spammers are often hackers testing the deficiencies of systems and are getting more cunning all the time. Any website connected to a database needs its security reviewed and updated regularly, to keep it from being targeted by spammers and hackers. Hackers will use all sorts of methods to get into a site, so it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive to online threats. 

If your site is built in a custom-built content management system and your developer decides to call it a day or some awful thing happens to them, you’ll have to rely on a new website developer taking on the site. That means someone new getting to know the site and relying again solely on them to keep the security up to date and deal with bug fixes. That’s all your business's online reputation in the hands of one person.

Website builders

There’s Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and 123reg, GoDaddy and Ionus all provide website builder websites, there are many more I could mention but that would be a crazy long list.

These are easy to build sites that are cheap to get up and running quickly. They can look really professional and offer lots of features. Depending on the industry they can be effective in search but often struggle in saturated industries where custom and opensource platforms often do better in Bing and Google. 

Unlikely as it might seem, companies go bust and systems do go down, with all but Squarespace (where sites can be exported as WordPress) you cannot export any of the above website builders to another hosting company, because they are integrated into their systems. 

So if you want a better deal or faster hosting, you would have to build the site again from scratch in another platform. So if your website is built in one of the above builders and it goes down you would actually need to start again.

Google seems to take websites built-in website builders less seriously than opensource or custom-built content management sites, this is perhaps due to the latter being favoured by professionals, website builder sites are more for hobbyists and small charities.

They’re a great place for startups to get off the ground, but long term if you want your business to be taken seriously we recommend an open-source solution such as WordPress or for bigger complex sites: Drupal.

Opensource content management

Our favourites at Polyspiral. WordPress and Drupal are great because of portability, security, they're well-supported, more future-proof, and the website owner is in control.   

Portability and empowering the site owner

The open-source platforms we use are WordPress and Drupal. 

Opensource means there’s no copyright or intellectual property laws associated with the software of these platforms. So any custom code added cannot be owned by anyone. That means no website developer can’t claim ownership of this custom code written and added to these platforms. 

This empowers the customer by allowing them to own the content (text and images) they add and legally move their website should they choose to. 

Unlike website builders mentioned above, WordPress and Drupal (these are the ones we specialise in, sorry if we’re missing any others out) can be moved to different hosting providers. With a little technical know-how, you can get a better hosting deal or a faster website depending on where you choose to host. 

Security and well-supported

The well-supported nature of WordPress and Drupal means enough people are invested to keep the security and any technology touching these platforms up-to-date and secure. 

WordPress is the most common website platform in the world, which means a lot of people need their WordPress website security kept up to date, plugins maintained and all running smoothly. 

Likewise for Drupal, favoured by Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), the Australian Government, Lush to name a few biggies. So as a result, there are lots of WordPress and Drupal developers out there supporting the plugins, modules and the core of these platforms. This ensures that if your Drupal developer retires it shouldn't be too hard to find another to take over. 

Long term, whatever Drupal and WordPress morph into in the future, there will be people who have been and are part of that journey working to ensure those sites are kept safe and sound.


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